A Long, Hard Road

A FF7 Alternate Universe fanfic

Chapter 23

By Twig


//Nothing here... no one here... I may as well be living on the moon.//

Anjele had considered going back to Costa Del Sol, or even further, back to Neo Midgar, and knew no one would have protested his decision... if they had even remembered he was alive.

Personal aides still came around from time to time, mostly to ask if he was hungry, or needed anything, or to keep giving him reports, though it didn't matter anymore, the details he received were meaningless... it was /all/ meaningless...

//In my heaven... only darkness,// the blonde thought softly, mind switching the subject to something less troublesome, as he leaned back in his chair, looked down upon the town below. Lights gleamed all over North Corel, but the city was still drowning in the night, the sky stretched out above, an unreachable paradise.

//In my heaven, it will /always/ be night.//

The night was soothing, promised peace, and sleep... and in sleep, his life would fade, and he could be, for a while, just an empty space in the universe, not Anjele, not /anything/, and most certainly not being pushed by forces beyond his control, nor punished, when he attempted to control that which moved around him...

//Why should I be punished...?// His hands clenched at the arms of his chair, another moment of frustration at the powers that controlled his life so easily, that pushed him around by whim yet refused to tell him why. //Why should I...//

Why did Cloud Strife live in the center of the life of the world, why were the forces of the future, the power to carve out the path the world would take, why were they /his/ to use?!

Of course, Anjele was no Rufus ShinRa, and was not concerned with class or rank... knew that anyone could move up in the world, that everyone had the right to...

//... but why him and not me!? WHY!?//

His plans were over, his strategies, due to luck or chance or fate, had failed him forever. Reeve now had the ability to censure him completely from the realm of power and politics, which he had done almost immediately, leaving him with nothing but a few aides, and of course, the spies the President had never known about...

A point of pride, that, that the man who had once been a spy himself could not detect them among those around him...

//As if it does me any good... any good at all from where I stand now...//

Strife was gone, Sephiroth was gone, his enemy and his weapon both, on their own missions, under their own orders, and he had no control, no influence... No one had told him what had happened, how Cloud Strife had managed to survive the assassin's knife... but his survival had been the death knell of Anjele's chances to take the power, to lead ShinRa... he had known that, even before Zack had come to call.

//... and now, I just know that it doesn't matter /what/ I do, or /what/ that blonde bastard actually is, or how many people he's killed... They love him, all his friends, and Zack, and the entire damn world... they love him, and that makes him invincible...//

No one respected the young politician anymore, if anyone ever had, and many, like the Turks he had seen earlier in the day, held no reservations, and insulted him to his face, or behind his back, loud enough for all to hear. The blonde official had wished, more than once, for a few remembered words of wisdom from his father, but his hard fall, and impact with the truth had made too much too clear... Apart from a few vicious words, a few selfish impulses, his father had been nothing. Nothing, and a man like that could teach him nothing about how to live. Anjele was completely on his own.


The man who spoke never ventured past the shadows, even in the near darkness of the room. Anjele turned slowly in his chair, watched the figure step forward just slightly, laying a vial on the desktop.

"It was retrieved from the samples brought back from Wutai, just as you asked."

Anjele moved forward.

"Did anyone see you?"

"No sir. It hasn't even been catalogued, only tested. The lab is in chaos. No one will ever notice it went missing."

"I'll put an extra fifty-thousand in your account."

It was the least he could do. If Reeve ever noticed the money was missing, it would be after the war... and Anjele was starting to believe that, no matter what happened, he would not survive to see the end of this long night.

"Thank you, sir."

The figure melted into the shadows, and was gone, the ability of any good spy. The blonde leaned forward, gently picked up the tube the man had left behind, watching the slight light play across its curved edge as he tilted it in his fingers. Beneath that slight shine, there was total darkness, and Anjele knew that even if he had waited to examine it in the daylight, nothing would change, nothing was strong enough to pierce that shadow...


He smiled slightly, at the slight whisper at the edge of his mind, the rustle of a distant wind, almost inaudible... but it was there, and solid. Even this small concentration of active Jenova cells was connected to the whole... and it had power enough to reach out to even him, power... and potential.

//Jenova... /this/ is what gave them both such power, that made all of them SOLDIERs... and this is what has kept them in the game.//

He shifted the dark vial back and forth in his hand, though the contents never changed, never moved, the thick black never rippling with even the slightest hint of color...

//... this is what has kept them in the game...//

He had no real ties to humanity, Anjele mused. Why should he? What had any of them ever done for him? What obligation did he have, to a world of people who so obviously despised him, to whom he had no value?

//... even if I was to become her pawn, nothing but her slave... wouldn't that be better, than simply fading away?//

Anjele held no illusions, about what he was considering, or the consequences of his actions, no matter how things turned out. This was not about becoming more powerful than Strife, or thinking he could beat Hojo, or Jenova, or wanting anything, really... except to just stay in the game. He could not fade quietly into the sunset, could not watch the world and its deadly, delicious dance simply pass him by... he could /not/.

//If I do this... I've betrayed my species, my father... and anyone I've ever shown the slightest affections to.// Truly, in his heart, Anjele knew he wasn't /that/ important, that in the grand scheme of things, he was barely even a pawn... but still, he knew things, and if Jenova was truly as skillful, as manipulative and intelligent as she had been portrayed...

//I could lose this war, for humanity. I could be the dissention, the traitor that ensures her victory...//

If he did it, he would be the Judas goat for all the world, and would most likely die himself, somewhere along the way, or afterward, when he had served his purpose. There would be no great reward, although he could probably delude himself into imagining one...

//If I /don't/... if I let things remain as they are...//

The night was no longer peaceful, but cold, and empty, his years stretching out before him, worthless, useless, his own presence meaningless, accomplishing nothing of any worth or merit. It would be the same until he died, and was forgotten, an imprint in the sand, quickly erased by the winds of time. His father lived in no one's memory save his own, and he had no son...

Choose to betray the world, and play the game until the final round... or choose to try to save it, and no one would ever know, of his nobility, his determination to do what was "right". His decision would be unrecorded, would vanish into the vast annals of history without a trace...

Anjele looked at the vial for another moment, sighed, and opened up the top drawer of his desk, setting the glass tube next to a long syringe, staring at the gap where the vial would go. It would only take mere moments, to load the needle, to press the tip to his skin...


His eyes widened in surprise, at another murmur, the pulse this time much stronger than the last, a surge of excitement, anticipation... Yes, this was what the darkness wanted him to do...

Anjele smiled indulgently, and slowly shut the drawer, locking it tight.

It was not a decision to be made in a single night.


"If we try to take the high ground, we'll cut our speed in /half/ at /least/!"

"If we /don't/ take the high ground, you're going to lose this siege just like you lost the last one!"

Unflinching blue eyes met icy green, and Roman did his best to shrink as far into the corner of the tent as possible, feeling the cloth stretch against his back, and wishing either General had thought to send him away, as they had every other commander beneath them. Cloud and Sephiroth had been arguing for nearly an hour over the best way to split their forces, the specifics of the maneuver that would give both armies the best chance of reaching the summit of the Crater. The only thing the hour seemed to have decided was that the two men would /never/ be able to agree on any course of action.

"The map's wrong anyway..." Cloud gestured to the large landscape laying on the table between them. "None of that /looks/ like that anymore..."

"How could you possibly know that?"

"I just do!"

Sephiroth opened his mouth as if to speak, but closed it again, pacing just slightly where he stood, obviously angered even more by his inability to argue the logical point, something Roman and the rest of the army had learned long ago to hold as simple truth. Logic had quickly taken a back seat to Cloud's intrinsic knowledge early on in this war... and what the blonde general said, for a long time now, was no less than unquestioned law.

//... and General Sephiroth knows it... and I can't /imagine/ a guy like him having to take orders, expected to obey instead of lead...//

Once more, Ro wished he could just flee. The General usually possessed the icy calm of a frozen lake, revealing nothing beneath a shockingly serene surface, and from the little he had seen and heard, Ro knew the same could be said for Sephiroth. Now, however, thrown together and forced to try to assemble a compromise, the two men were anything but reserved, visibly restraining the true depths of a nearly overwhelming animosity...

//I hope they don't fight, I /really/ hope...//

As Strife's second-in-command, the redhead knew that he would most likely be obligated to attempt to stop them, a feat that would surely earn him a quick, messy death.

Luckily for him, the tense discussion continued on, peaking at a few heart-stopping moments into bouts of near violence, but thankfully, those peaks passed without action, and somehow Cloud and Sephiroth came to an agreement, both men reaching a compromise without ever admitting they had done so. Finally, the dark-clad man left, to see to his own troops, to prepare for the charge, and the nerve-wrenching tension in the air began to ebb.


"Sir?" The redhead realized he had been leaning hard on one of the tent poles, immediately snapped to attention. Strife was still looking down at the map, did not turn to him.

"Go get Karat ready... and tell the regiment commanders to prepare to ride."

Time was of the essence now, they all knew that, but the thought of actually having to /go/ to the Crater still chilled Roman's insides. He still hadn't let himself think of the dangerous mission as real, not even now, as he saluted his commander and stepped away, prepared to relay the order.

//The /General's/ commanding this, for God's sake, Ro!// His common sense smacked him hard, forced him to reconsider. //Come on... has he ever let you down before?//

He wondered, then, how the two commanders could be so fiercely angry at each other. If Cloud's focus was true, as it always was, how could the two Generals still have spent so much time fighting?


//Well... the honeymoon's /definitely/ over...//

Sephiroth didn't bother to argue with the tone of that particular thought, or push back any of the muddled emotions that came with it. It was simply stupid to deny what was already so obvious...

//... though .why/ it has to be obvious? Why can't I just get /rid/ of feeling this way? I always could before...//

It was almost always easy for Sephiroth to take the shine off a new love interest, to remove the layer of emotion that made a crush seem flawless, and worth trusting, loving with a completely open heart.

Sephiroth did nothing with an open heart, and prided himself on his shield of intellect, the way he could keep the world at an arm's length, and insure that he would never be caught off guard, especially when it came to weaknesses, like love.

Learning what he had about his fall, how Jenova had used him, only strengthened the walls he had already created. His manipulation under her will made it clear that his intellect still wasn't strong enough, that he /still/ didn't think things through long enough, wasn't hard enough on himself. Reason /had/ to be the solution... the world was based in systems of logic, and /all/ problems had answers...

//... sometimes, it just takes a little more work.//

It was usually nothing, to pick a fight with any fresh object of his desire, to goad them into showing their ugliest inner nature, the most defensive and unreasonable emotions, the selfish and cruel impulses...

Sephiroth could still care for them after the fight, and most often such an argument /was/ the tell-tale prelude to the rest of the relationship... but it also banished any real excitement he might have felt, any sense of wonder at a new, mysterious love, and, most importantly, the dizzying, breathless feeling that he wasn't completely in control, that the person before him was at all an enigma...

//Beauty, there's beauty in the enigmatic... but the unknown can hurt, and to defend from that hurt, the unknown /must/ be uncovered...//

It was better to sacrifice simple pleasure for the security of keeping your feet on the ground, the calm of not giving in to that heady, breathless thrill of mystery...

... the thrill that he felt even now, as he was walking away from what had most certainly been a fight with Cloud Strife.

//I didn't even want... I didn't... this is /insane/...//

A part of him had wanted to stir up an argument, just to prove to himself once and for all, that Strife was a belligerent, obnoxious little prick, and that under whatever surface beauty he had, there was only, at the best, an ice cold man of steel, and at the worst, an annoying shit. It had worked so well with Rufus ShinRa, the man Sephiroth had kept comparing Cloud to whenever any feelings about the blonde fighter attempted to surface... whenever his thoughts rested for too long on the blonde's profile, the strong chin, the delicate features, and those glowing blue...

Sephiroth shook his head, the scowl he had been holding back finally flickering across his otherwise impassive features.

//You're obsessing over him, it's disgusting... when he's...//

The rest of that thought echoed in his mind, "... when he's just like Rufus ShinRa," but did not stick with the certainty it once had. He could try to keep arguing the point, but in the end, Cloud was /nothing/ like Rufus ShinRa, not as cold, not as callous, or as determinedly cruel.

Cloud was... Cloud was...

His heart leapt, a strange, but not quite unpleasant sensation, and Sephiroth nearly snarled.

//Damn you, Strife, for doing this to me... and damn me, for not being able to lie to myself about it.//

The initial intention, Sephiroth knew, had been quite simple. Goad the blonde into an argument, to destroy his infatuation. Argue with Cloud, and he would realize, just as he had with Rufus ShinRa, that the blonde fighter wasn't worth the excitement. Sephiroth knew his mind was wise and careful, though his eyes and heart were blind to the truth, and his intellect would prove that beauty was not enough to hide a selfish, willful bastard, to give value to someone not even worth taking on for even purely physical joys...

The argument itself, though, had struck from nowhere, and though the white-haired man /was/ the one to start it, he had forgotten all about his plan, truly hadn't done it for any other reason than because his plans and Cloud's were nearly incompatible.

//We differ on strategies, by a great margin. Strife's good, but he's untrained... I just /know/ more than he does, I've studied for it all my life...//

Of course, he would admit that simply surviving on the battlefield did make up for much of what Strife hadn't learned from books, and the fighter's still vital connection to the Planet added even more to his skill, though it irked Sephiroth to no end, to have to acknowledge /that/ particular quirk...

//Oh, admit it, his strategies probably would have worked just as well as yours, which will most likely be /not at all/. This is little more than a /suicide mission/, this entire /war/ is... you're just angry that someone can give you orders, and that you have to listen to him...//

Strife did outrank him, though the other man had never mentioned it, hadn't brought it up through the entire terse discussion...

A funny thought made him pause, that he himself was, now... how /old/? If Sephiroth didn't count the years he'd been gone, or the year he had returned, but had not been anything but a shell for Jenova's will... with the years after that...

//... is Strife /older/ than I am?//

It was almost funny, the blonde being older as well as higher ranked, that there was some sort of new power in that, and more humor in the thought of Cloud attempting to use the fact against him, or even /thinking/ of it, in that quiet, cautious, fearful way of his...

//What do you mean, fearful?//

Sephiroth stopped short, all his angry thoughts fracturing, and the musing, pensive stream that flowed beneath, that had given him that small thought now rising up to the surface...

Cloud /hadn't/ attempted to pull rank during their feud, hadn't dissolved into a threatening fury, or thrown insults, or any of the other things Sephiroth had expected him to do. The blonde /had/ been angry, violently so, but the things that lay beneath that anger were strangely placid, and ran deep, and startlingly quiet. The incongruity between the language of the body and the whisper of those blue eyes had been stronger than ever...

//"Almost a different person," that was what Zack said. If Strife's visible anger doesn't conceal a deeper fury, then... what?//

If not that, then what was he missing? It didn't make sense, that there would be /fear/ behind the anger, or something even further behind that, an emotion that the white-haired man couldn't identify. Impossible, when he had spent his entire life studying those subtle nuances, silent languages that had the power to drown out all other words...

//... the way he holds himself, like a soldier from a textbook, in front of his troops, perfectly poised, ready for battle... and his eyes are mirrors, allowing no entrance...//

/... but then, when he is alone.../

Sephiroth had already run the memories of his short time with Cloud through his mind until they had nearly been embossed there, searching for meaning, for some truth that, as always, he could see but not understand...

//When he is alone, that strong pose is gone... his eyes are so skittish, and fearful, glancing as if to rest would be to break, either the object under his gaze, or himself, or...//

The white-haired man realized that his thoughts had turned to subtle poetry once /again/, yet another reality he could not overlook, the truth behind it all pressing down hard on already heavy thoughts.

/Oh Seph, you've got it /bad/./

It was the truth, and it scared him, and he could, /would/ deny none of it. Fighting with Cloud had been accidental, despite his best intentions. No matter how he tried to justify it to himself, a part of him was enjoying the mystery, and the thrill of it all. The blonde simply drove all logic, all reason away from the other man's mind, and even when Sephiroth had tried to reach down, to tear away that unknown...

//I can't find stable ground. I know I have to... but I can't... I can't just push him away.//

A sudden, bitter gust of wind swirled up, hit him harder than he expected, and made his thoughts shudder along with his body, just for a moment... the sharp, icy cold seeming to cut right to his brain, the only memory left standing that of those flawless, sky-blue eyes...

//God, I want to kiss him... and to hell with /everything/ else.//

Cloud didn't know, and he wouldn't care even if he did... and that, of course, was Sephiroth's greatest blessing. The blonde couldn't use a power he didn't know existed, and the white-haired man could control his infatuation, /would/ kill it eventually, in whatever way he could, and that was if time and fate didn't do the job for him...


Reality was always somewhat of a relief, from the burdens of too much thinking, though now, Sephiroth was loathe to admit just how much he needed it, needed not to focus on his situation. His voice was of course, steady, as if he had been thinking of nothing, or at least, nothing troublesome all this time.

"Ready the chocobos... we're moving out."

"Yes, sir!"

The start of the most important campaign of the war was at hand, and there would certainly be strategy enough now to occupy even his racing mind. Sephiroth knew that, even now, they barely had a fair chance of reaching the summit, let alone that he and Cloud would ever have a window of opportunity for the Crater... or that they would go together if they did...

//You're a fool, with a stupid, meaningless crush on someone you most likely only want because you know you can't ever /have/ him. Forget about it, and focus on what's important!//

A part of him felt deeply shamed, at even having to give himself the admonition, that he could ever be so preoccupied, especially with such a battle waiting in the wings...

... but deep down, in the very back of his thoughts, that fuzzy, unexplainable feeling still remained, well aware that nothing had changed, secure in its own knowledge, that its existence was due to much more than mere infatuation, and could not be dismissed so easily.


"Fourth and sixth, prepare to cut over to the left and run up... straight through. We'll keep them occupied here, they'll never see you coming."

The war... was relaxing. It was hilarious, that he would find it so, but Cloud actually felt very much at ease, tightening his grip on the Ultima weapon, preparing to charge through yet another platoon of monsters. Hojo had seen them coming, had prepared, and even his army's crippled strength was stunning, and dangerous.

The blonde cut a look over, quickly, to see Ro tightening his own grip on a rather large weapon... one of Scarlet's materia pulse cannons, a promising sign, that she had taken his request for more portable weapons to heart. Ro wasn't visibly nervous, but Cloud could see the soldier steeling himself, preparing for what would certainly be a tough battle.

Anything was easier, though... fighting a thousand, a hundred-thousand... /anything/ was easier than having to stand in front of /him/, and pray that the wall would hold, when everything about him was a threat, a promise... that he would see, he would know...

//I can't do this... I can't...//

He had known it, known ever since they had told him Sephiroth was returning, that when this day came, he would be lost...

//Let it go, just let it go...//

The battle, the war was all that remained for him now. Not words, feelings, hope or fear. Only the fight, only that... or he knew he would go mad.

The Wutai war cry was high and wild, the signal tearing through his throat in a vicious howl as Karat leapt forward - always, always - directly into the center of the oncoming nightmare.


"Any sign of Strife yet?"

"Right here."

Sephiroth turned, as Cloud dragged himself into the commanders tent, peeling gore-soaked gloves off of his hands, absently dragging a bit more of the blood through his already filthy blonde hair as he rubbed his head, the spikes not losing even a fraction of their determined height despite the liberal covering of mud and filth. The few commanders that had been relaxing in the small space quickly saluted, and took their leave. In moments, Cloud and Sephiroth were alone.

"I'd thought you'd have had no trouble, not this far down, and with my troops on the high pass."

It hadn't been intended as a slight, or an insult, but Sephiroth knew it came out that way, and bit the inside of his lip in frustration as Cloud's eyes blazed momentarily, quickly averting their gaze... perhaps he hadn't yet seen the full force of the anger in those glowing pools, but that didn't mean it wasn't there... and both their tempers would be shortened, the closer they got, and the more forces Hojo sent against them.

//Fuck that, I don't care. I am /not/ pandering to that little...// The white-haired man cut that proud thought off sharply. Pride would win him nothing here... and if bending to the other man's temper was what it would take...

//Fuck that fuck that fuck that!!! I will /not/ play gentle with him, I don't give a shit /who/ he is or what his problem is!//

"Hojo knows I'm coming. He's got a score to settle with me... and his creatures can... sense me, somehow. Are you...?" Cloud trailed off, his eyes hovering close, but never quite landing on the white-haired man. The blonde swallowed hard, obviously trying to phrase his question as politely as he could.

"Are you having any... problems?"

Sephiroth's eyes widened slightly, as he realized the thought hadn't even crossed his mind. It should have, really...

"Nothing. I can sense..." He frowned, searching his own thoughts, for any signs of disturbance, confusion. "I know Jenova's army is out there, though whether that's anything more than everyone else's common knowledge, I'm not sure... but no, she hasn't... /tried/ anything. I actually doubt if she can, now."

"How could you know that?"

Sephiroth smiled, as the blonde parroted his words of that morning, the very few the white-haired man had remembered through the long day of fighting.

"I just do."

Cloud caught the reference to the past, and Sephiroth watched him bristle, felt amusement, this time, and not anger... Funny, really, the way the blonde could bring up so many emotions at random, when the white-haired man had been sure that he had tempered his heart solid, as unbending as the Masamune, so long ago... that no unexamined impulse had remained in his heart, to ever shake his calm.

//... and sometimes, I think it's dangerous, to feel this way...// He mused on how he had been worried, only hours before, and how things didn't seem as threatening now... Hell, a war would do that, put things in perspective...

... how nice it was, to see Cloud again.

//Sometimes, I don't mind feeling this way at all.//

"How did your troops fare?"

Cloud was already hard at work on the well-worn map that rested between them, making vicious slashes through several secondary paths, and other marks along the route ahead... no doubt he had done so many times before, in Wutai, when he had been the only one to read his hand, when none of the other commanders would act without his word...

Sephiroth only hoped Strife had forgotten his presence, had simply overlooked him, otherwise this meeting, late and wearying as it was, would probably explode as easily as the first one had.

"What are you doing?" It was the mildest question he could manage in his annoyance, that the blonde didn't bother to glance in his direction as he continued to work.

"The northwest gap is gone... and the forces in front of us have doubled, at least. Every night we stop... we'll get hit twice as hard the next morning."

"You can sense all that?"

"Yes." Cloud's voice was slightly distant, he was paying only slight attention to the conversation, keeping most of his concentration on his work. It was just another slight that made Sephiroth scowl, though it quickly vanished under his increasing attention, to keep the blonde from provoking him into /any/ reaction...

"It was easier... with the Cetra, but I can still pick up enough now, and I've been hearing it so long, I know what it means, where it's coming from."

"Regrets? Are you... sorry I intervened? With them?"

Cloud paused, for a long moment, the black marker in his hand leaving a widening stain over a narrow ridge.

"No. They would have killed me." He continued to work, the moment of tension passing, "You really can't hear anything?"

"The Cetra spoke to me, back then. I heard them, when I..." Whatever had happened, neither one of them still had the words, though they both understood. "They were convinced I was working for Jenova... I think they knew I could sever the connection between you, well before I did."

The pen had stopped again, but Sephiroth continued on as if he hadn't noticed.

"My hypothesis? You chose to side with the Planet, either at the start of this war, or before, and that has influenced you up to this point. We both know... I chose Jenova."

"She took you."


Cloud's reply came again, so low it was nearly inaudible.

"You didn't choose anything... she forced you into it..."

He had never thought Strife would really even consider the thought, let alone argue in favor of his virtue.

"You give me too much credit, Strife. I was not myself, back then, but I was... selfish. I wanted to believe her lies. It made my life easier to believe them."

His thoughts swerved sharply, in the seconds after, as Cloud continued working and did not answer him. Why... why had he said all that, admitted things he never would have, to anyone save Zack...

//... and even then, he'd usually have to pry them out of me.//

Sephiroth had been given yet another chance to study Cloud unawares, this time coolly... the blonde had done nothing to merit it, the change all lay on the white-haired man's end... but still...

There had to be a way to get closer to the blonde. At least /one/ way to talk to Cloud, on equal terms, without argument or anger... to get the blonde to trust him, if only as far as simple conversation. If he could do that, Sephiroth knew he could discover what Strife had, what strange twist of attraction he held that made him so compelling.

//... and if I can do that, I can /fix/ this whole problem, drop this useless crush, and then...//

His wandering thoughts were, all at once, immersed in a sea of frozen, screaming darkness.

The invisible wave hit them both at once, though Sephiroth only swayed slightly, while he heard Cloud bite back a cry, leaning heavily against the table.

The Cetra had not been human, but there had been the presence of familiarity, even in their fury, something Sephiroth could relate to... This, the raw, unshielded power of the Planet's cry... a fury, a despair that tore his weak, human body to nothing, drowned his soul in a pain he could not understand... he could feel it, knew that somewhere beyond, the cause for that pain was lurking... but that further knowledge was beyond him, that recognition more than he could ever... ever find...

How had he ever dreamed, how had he ever thought, even in insanity, that he could harness this power?

The white-haired man blinked, and all at once he was no longer frozen, realized that the Planet had gone silent... and Sephiroth knew, unquestioningly, as the last feelings faded, that he had only been witness to an echo, an aftershock of what had nearly sent Cloud to the floor.

//I could feel... but it was... blurred? Distant... a weak connection, at best. Some remnant, of when I came to his aid?//

He couldn't help a moment of relief, that he had not taken the full impact of the Planet's cry... but it quickly vanished, /angrily/ vanished as he realized that Cloud most certainly had.

The blonde was fighting simply to stand, weakly pushing against the table, but his legs wouldn't hold him... and he was so pale, and shaking... Certainly this hadn't happened /every/ time since the Cetra's disappearance, surely, not every one of those marks on the map, Strife's intuitions, not /all/ of those had exacted this price...?

He knew... he already knew that answer.


The effects of the attack had left a phantom presence that still walked through his thoughts, leaving footsteps that were breathtakingly cold and painful, and that took Sephiroth back so many years, to memories of weakness he had done his best to forget, of years of suffering, unable to protect himself from the world, or ShinRa, from stopping any of Hojo's endless experimentations...

It was as if some barrier had been lifted, an illusory strength swept away as the Planet's howl faded... and the arrogance was gone from Cloud Strife, as if it had never been, and the man that remained, the person bowed, trembling... defenseless...


No, not him, not for years upon years, not those times he could barely admit, even to himself... but Sephiroth /had/ been there, had been in the place Cloud was now, and knew, knew what it was like to feel as if you were standing against the world...

//... and in a way, he /is/.//

He reached out.


The touch was nothing, barely brushing the blonde's shoulder, even less than he had done the first time, when the fighter had been burned, but Cloud leapt away as if he had been struck, blue eyes snapping up to meet his, watching him with a horrified, stricken look that cut Sephiroth to the quick. He couldn't even pull his hand back, couldn't feign indifference, as that sudden ache clashed with rising fury... why bother? Why pretend, to be anything other than what he was, untouchable, unloved?

//Oh get off it. You knew very well the limits of this little fantasy. There's no one to blame but yourself.//

It was a reminder he didn't need, not on top of the deeper rejection, the reason it was necessary to keep his distance, why he didn't reach out - not /ever/ - and that all his quietly building feelings were nothing, yet he had somehow harbored them anyway, let them grow simply because Cloud had not yet reacted, to throw that hope back in his face...

... as he did now. That fear, that surprise, and Sephiroth knew if he waited, just a few moments more, it would turn to revulsion... and hate... God, he was tired of seeing that hate.

"They're here."

Cloud's choked whisper broke the white-haired man's growing anger, just as a warning cry cut through the frigid air, echoed by another voice, then two, then the low vibration beneath the army's growing cries of alarm, the earth shuddering in agony, as Hojo's army sprang forth to meet them.


It should have been a massacre, as Hojo's troops poured down the valley, attacking Cloud and Sephiroth's armies together in the night camp, when the men were at their weakest, worn down after an already full day of unending bloodshed. The monsters had the blessing of the darkness, and could move into the camp nearly unseen, cause chaos in troops who hadn't yet been given a plan. The beasts could strike quickly and vanish, or remain, if it was found that their victims were too shocked and frightened to fight back. It was a strategy that had worked in countless towns before, with far fewer beasts than those that plunged into the battle now.

It should have been a massacre... had the Planet not screamed, had a leader of near-mythic power, and a leader now driven by nothing more than pure fury, the need for revenge not been leading an army of the same, vast regiments of men and women forged in Wutai fires, who had buried comrades and family alike in tear-soaked soil... soldiers who didn't need orders to know when and how to strike, how to stay alive, and who thirsted for nothing greater than Hojo's blood, at any cost.

"Strife! Lightning, now!"

The first attack had been launched by the fastest monsters, who had put distance between themselves and the rest of the army. Their job was to whip the camp into a frenzy, to keep the soldiers confused, scattered, and unable to defend themselves when the rest of the army struck.

All it did was give Cloud and Sephiroth the few spare seconds they needed to reach the edge of the camp, while that initial wave was cut down by soldiers not at all panicked, who instantly formed an impenetrable defensive line.

The darkness closed in, as the creatures plowed through the lights... but the army was ready.

Cloud launched the Bolt 3 spell towards the oncoming mass of Hojo's forces, and felt the air pressure drop, as it always did, that split second before the spell tore through the air... and turned slightly, as another green sphere flared into life, in the hilt of the Masamune, and a Flare spell sang into the air already saturated with building power, the explosion and lightning mixing, thrown outward in a sweeping wave of power that tore its way through Hojo's ranks, stopping the attacking wave in their tracks.

A war cry hit the air, and Cloud was surprised to find that it was his, wasn't sure whether he yelled or whistled for Karat first, as the bird darted across the field, and he leapt into the saddle without pause, leaning hard to the right by instinct, as an explosion tore the ground in front of him. He hazarded one glance back, to see Sephiroth standing exactly where he was, deflecting blows with ease, one moment away from making his own charge against the enemy...

One moment, for the blonde to send a prayer to anything in this dark time that still might listen, or care. A prayer, as always, that if one of them had to die today, it would be him, that Sephiroth would live...

A roaring crescendo, and Karat warbled in alarm as the ground burst up from underneath them, the Chocobo madly trying to keep its balance as the Quake spell roared around them, and Cloud looked up... and up... and up... his night vision barely able to follow the mass of writhing figures, the multi-headed serpent preparing to strike...

//If one of us is to die... let it be me.//


Death came to many that day, but not for him, and Cloud soon realized that he didn't really /want/ to die anymore, not as he had once, that the apathy he had never considered separate from him was, in fact, not a natural part of his soul, that the dark place he had been in... been in for so long was gone, because of who had returned...

//For him?! You think there's a reason to live, because /he's/ back?!//

/He touched me... we've spoken... things I never even dreamed.../

//... and you think that means more, don't you?// There was more mercy in the cruelest world than in the voices inside Cloud's own head. //You're an idiot. It means /nothing/... he'll never even /see/ you... not /ever/! Worthless, useless...//

Cloud relented, agreed, burying his thoughts, ignoring his emotions... It was easy, and not nearly the first time he had hidden his hopes, the remains of his dreams, especially from himself.

Death made its way across the battlefield, choosing here and there, both enemy and ally alike... and the battle raged, long into the night. Eventually Cloud found a radio, could begin to lead a true advance, and eventually there was cover, though Cloud saw they had not retreated to find it, that even in the chaos the army had forced Hojo's troops to give up ground, until the soldiers could dig in behind a small ridge, a more than adequate defense. The monsters had obviously been expecting a massacre... but not of their own troops...

It got quiet, and Cloud assumed it was approaching dawn, was probably only a quarter hour until the first signs of light appeared in the sky. Death had come during the night... but not for him, and not for Roman Gemini, either, the redhead curled only a few feet away, fast asleep against Karat's side despite the bombardment still pounding down around them. The young man was exhausted, oblivious to the soldiers' cries of victory or agony, or the fire of the cannons behind them, supporting them... and didn't stir, as a sharp voice cut through on Cloud's PHS.

"Strife, you there?"

It was easier to hear Sephiroth over the radio. No one sounded like themselves through the small machine, and his heart didn't even know to skip its usual beat.


"The army's been fairly split, my side along the right flank, with yours stretched out a little further along the valley floor... it's not perfect, by any means, but it does give us a few advantages."

"We can't stay here, I know. We'll charge at dawn. You saw the map... if you stick to the high path, I'll take the low..."

Cloud winced, braced for impact as the ground shook all around him, the scream of whatever projectiles Hojo's monsters were firing making his ears ring.

"... I'll take the low path, and we'll split with the valley up ahead, hopefully break off the full force of Hojo's attack. Remember, ignore the northwest pass completely, it's nothing but monsters ... and we'll rendezvous at the Crater plateau."

It was, technically, a fool's gambit, pushing two already exhausted armies forward in a blind charge, but this war had given itself up to such things, a war with only one real side, where there were no other options left but to fight.

Cloud reached out with a foot, nudged Roman sharply and watched him snap awake, his eyes blankly staring for a moment, quickly focusing on him.

"We're moving out."


"Sir, we've got word... it looks like most of Hojo's forces are following General Strife and his men into the valley..."

Sephiroth felt a spike of anger, at the man's relieved, almost cheerful tone. His thoughts were harsher than they really should have been, taking it much too personally...

//Happy it's not you, soldier? Are you so willing to let your General die, just to save your own neck?//

It was righteous anger... but /not/ because he was worried for Cloud... he couldn't afford to let it be...

//stupid stupid stupid!//

"We need to break through /now/, and send back who we can to help them!"

Despite his determined tone, Sephiroth knew the odds of that happening, at least in the immediate future, were not good. Fighting even the lesser half of Hojo's army was still a daunting task, and the unrelenting power of their attacks was stunning, would have felled a lesser army in moments...

//How did Strife ever manage to keep any of them alive long enough to train them? How did any of them survive to become veterans?//

Somehow, the blonde fighter had, and it was the only reason any of them were here now. Sephiroth tried to ignore the next thought, pointless and illogical as it was, but it would not go away... that their success was built on Cloud's sacrifice, and this time it was very likely the General would die for it.

//This is war, damn it. People die, it's what /happens/. Who cares/?!//

The white-haired man ignored his worry, tried to pour every ounce of focus into the fight, but the thought ate away at him anyway, a concern he did /not/ want to have...

The battle raged, and ebbed, and raged again, and they fought for every inch of land they took... and after another long, sleepless night, just like the last, and another heavy day of fighting, the army burst through the valley to the lower plateau, the ring of mountains outside the inner circle of the Crater barely visible, a thin, dark blue line on the horizon.

... and of course, Cloud's army was not there to meet them.

The valley had been a gauntlet, a trial by the worst kind of fire. One hour passed on the open plain, then two, with no sign of attack, and barely a glimpse of any of Hojo's creatures... and the entire army breathed a collective sigh of relief, quietly started recuperating, regaining what strength they could. The situation was still dire, the other half of the army was still in danger, but they could do nothing for the moment but rest.

Sephiroth tried to sleep, forced himself to eat, but couldn't ease the strain on his nerves, the alarm he felt despite himself, as a scout finally sent out came back, reporting no sign... and the hours dragged, and there was still no sign... and he paced back and forth inside the communications tent, with the strongest receiver they had pointed towards the valley behind them... and still, there was no sign...

//The scouts can't go out that far... it doesn't mean...//

... but it /did/ mean the worst, that things /were/ really that bad. The gauntlet remained, and Cloud's army was trapped inside. No longer denying his worries, Sephiroth did his damnedest to mask them, cloak them in half-truths... he was worried about the /army/, not Strife... the fate of the war, and not... not...

//What's /wrong/ with you? You remember how he looked at you! He was horrified, at the thought that you would even touch him!//

/It wasn't like that, though, not the first time.../

//Are you so sure of that? Or was he just in too much pain to bother? Was it easier for him to pretend that he could stand you, so that he could receive your help?//

/Just because he doesn't hate you for what you did doesn't mean... Even if his past and yours... even if you have shared the same grief, he could /still/ easily hate you for what you /are/... After all, he was human once, you never /really/ were./

//Stupid... its so stupid...//

"Hello? ... anyone there?"

Sephiroth spun on his heel, as a low voice broke over the transmitter.

"Hello? Can anyone hear me?"



"Where are you?"

Crackles of static danced through the message, but the picture was still disturbingly clear.

"... held here since this morning... been pushed to... northwest... pinned, can't backtrack..."

"Strife, we're waiting on the lower plateau... we've been resting, we can..."

"No good." The voice was heavily distorted, nearly drowned by the static hiss, but Sephiroth swore he could hear the resignation in the other man's tone.

"Hit the Crater. Now. We're not going to make it," another loud crackle, "... hold them off, keep their attention, while you..."


"... the Crater. That's all that matters."

"Strife? Cloud?"



"If they hit you, and you can't hold your position here, you are under no obligation to die defending what we've gained. We took it once, we can take it again."

//What are you doing? What do you /think/ you're doing?!//

/I'm not thinking./ Sephiroth replied to that cry of anger, as he wheeled his black chocobo around, towards the valley.

//If the army can't hold their position here, without /you/ to lead them, they could get pushed all the way back to Icicle... /if/ they survived to make it that far...//

/You're risking the entire army... /and/ you're going /alone/?!/

He couldn't afford to take anyone with him... everyone was needed here...

//... and /you're/ needed here too, you moron! Will you really sabotage everything you've done, for this?!//

/If I stay, we could lose /anyway/, there's /no/ guarantee... and I can't just stand by and let half the army /die/./

//... and Cloud.//

/Shut up!/

"We'll hold here, sir." The commander handed him the reins, and saluted, "Bring them back."


The man standing next to Ro went down too quickly to even cry out, his head bitten off in a vicious rending motion that took several strips of skin along his chest and back with it, the lower half of his body disappearing in a splash of red. The lieutenant turned swiftly, only feeling the rush of air as the beast moved in for its next kill, bringing his sword up out of pure instinct. He heard the scrape of steel against the creature's long incisors, the impact rattling through his entire body, the increasing pressure against the blade quickly becoming more than he could bear.

A sharp explosion in his shoulder, and Ro dropped with a cry of pain, sword falling from a now useless hand - /shit!/ - and he looked up in horror, as the monster arched backward, before moving in for the kill...

A flash of light, and it was gone, not even leaving a trail of blood behind him, or a few droplets thrown through the air with the impact. It had vanished, with one sweep of an impossibly broad sword...


//Shit... The General, seeing me like this...//

The redhead tried to look down, find his sword, but all at once, the ground rushed up to meet him instead. Before he hit, there were hands on his shoulders, pulling him back up, though the pain in his arm didn't seem to be connected at all to the touch, or to the blood he could see leaking through his uniform... shit, his arm wasn't gone was it? Couldn't be... wasn't... no, there it was... but it wouldn't move... wouldn't move?

Roman struggled to pull his fingers into a fist, but barely managed to make them twitch. He groaned as hot pain tore through him in a sickening wave, rewarding him for his effort. It ebbed after a few moments, but by then Ro had already forgotten about it, was watching his commander's eyes instead. The General was looking back across the field, and down to the valley below, and whatever he saw very obviously wasn't pleasant.

They had fought up to this higher point, gained the advantage, but it had cost them, the price as high as anything Ro remembered from any of the battles in the Wutai mountains, the bodies strewn all around him just like broken toys, the newly dead... and more dying below, the death toll with each second that passed...

Ro couldn't help but follow The General's gaze, though he was sure his commander was seeing more than he ever could in the chaotic patterns swirling below.

//Still... I think I see... /that's/ strange...//

It would have made sense for Hojo's forces to drive straight through the army, attempt to split it, and from this high vantage point Ro could see that such a strategy might even have worked, that the front lines had left themselves open for such an attack... but Hojo's forces were holding back, moving amongst themselves, and slowly began coming /toward/ where he and The General stood... a questionable strategy at /best/...

//Why are they ignoring the army? What in the world...?//

"You've still got them hard-wired to come after /me/, don't you, you stupid son of a bitch?"

Ro looked uncomprehendingly at his commander, but those glowing blue eyes were still fixed on the lead line of the enemy's forces. The blonde turned away, whistled sharply...

... and the next Roman knew, he was being helped up onto a chocobo, The General pulling into the saddle behind him, and they were tearing across the snow. The lieutenant tried to stay conscious, but simply couldn't handle the burning, jolting agony in his arm anymore, knew he had been placed on the chocobo in front of his commander for just such a reason, and focused only on keeping his hand tight around the still-bleeding injury, as the darkness came in...

... and dimly, his last sensation... he could hear Hojo's army, howling in pursuit.


Ro woke with a start, gasping for air, eyes darting around wildly well before they had adjusted to the darkness. In his dreams, those last few cries had haunted him, chased him, the knowledge that they were being followed turning into a dark, swiftly constricting nightmare, and he had been fleeing wildly, running for his life, even with the knowledge that there was no chance of escape...


He was leaning against a rock wall, inside a fairly tall, but shallow cavern, the moonlight that spilled through easily illuminating everything in the small space. Ro looked down to see that his arm had been roughly bound, and a light ShinRa emergency blanket had been draped over him. There was no fire, the air was freezing, and the soldier watched his breath steam in front of him for a moment, before looked beyond, out of the mouth of the cave, to an endless number of fiery diamond pinpoints set in a perfectly black sky...

//Funny that... Out here, there are no cities, and we're so much higher up, with no other lights to affect the view...//

He had never seen the stars so clearly, as he had during his time in the war, both up along the Wutai mountains, and here, near the Crater, at an even higher altitude than most of his time in the mountains. It was... beautiful.

The redhead jumped at a sudden, slight noise from outside, and froze, barely breathing, at another rustle, something moving closer. He could feel his service pistol, still against his side, but knew he couldn't reach it, not with his arm bound so tightly... and he was at such an awkward position, aiming would be...

Yet another sound, even closer, and as his fear spiked to near unbearable levels, Karat rounded the corner of the cave, The General coming in close behind.

"You're awake."

Ro struggled to hold his commander's gaze, but ultimately lost, turned his eyes away... it was one thing in the daytime, he /had/ actually gotten used to it, but those glowing blue eyes were another thing entirely at night... just /not/ human...

"Yes sir."

Silence, /always/ silence, something the redhead couldn't fill, and didn't want to try.

Ro had seen Cloud speaking with General Zack, on several occasions, and had always wondered what in the world the generally good-natured commander had ever found to talk about with The General... The redhead had been serving with the man for nearly two years, and had never been able to utter more than a few sentences around him, and almost all of those concerning some operation or another. It seemed stupid to even suggest that General Strife /had/ the same kinds of thoughts the rest of them did, let alone the same troubles or weaknesses.

... and meeting up with Tifa, and Barret and the rest of them, all who claimed to be The General's /friends/? Ro had politely kept it to himself, that he didn't really believe it could be true.

//Of course, you didn't think he could get hurt, either.//

Yes, but whatever he had walked into back at North Corel, whatever that point in time, when it seemed that The General was in real danger... Ro realized now how quickly it had passed, how it must have been an error, a misunderstanding, a moment of hysterical overreaction built up further by inflated rumor...

/Nothing/ could stop The General, man, god or otherwise.

Ro looked up, as he saw the blue glow suddenly much closer, shining against the reflective surface of the blanket he was under, and swallowed hard as Cloud dropped to the ground beside him, reached out toward his wounded shoulder. The redhead forced himself not to flinch... he /could/ act normally around the General, after this long at his side, but it never really got any easier.

A gentle, weary wark sounded near his ear, as Karat settled down next to him, and Ro moved, very carefully, until he was resting with his back against the bird's soft, plush side. The chocobo cooed softly, and made a few playful nips at his hair, before dropping its head down to the floor, and quickly falling asleep. Roman swallowed, mouth dry, turning back to the cave's only other occupant... he didn't want to disturb his commander, but there were a few questions... if it was night, then he had been sleeping all day...

"How did it go?"

A quiet nod was his only reply, the General never looking up, surprisingly gentle hands continuing to unwrap the rough bandage from his arm.

//Those hands...//

Ro quietly watched him work, trying not to think of all he had seen those hands do... the way The General could tear enemies in half, or nearly inside-out, how he had witnessed one display after another, of a strength no man, no human should have... and how it wasn't apparent, on the outside, that the blonde had been capable of any of it...

//Hell, he's one of the shortest guys in the squadron...//

Ro grimaced, as The General's work neared its completion, and the bandages finally had to be pulled away from where they had been stuck to the skin.


The redhead blinked in surprise, that his commander had noticed... and cared.

"No... no problem, sir."

The Restore materia didn't do nearly the job it should have, nor as quickly, but everyone in the army had been long accustomed to the quirks that had appeared in the magical gems since Meteor had fallen from the sky, and Roman was content to wait, as the slow, gentle spell took the pain away, healed his injury...

//A little more than just content, I think...//

Between the easing pain, and the warm chocobo he was now using as a makeshift pillow, Ro was finding it very difficult to stay awake and alert, and to convince himself it was most likely his turn to stand watch. He watched sleepily as Cloud finished, sliding the small green orb back into a slot on his armband, standing as he flexed his hand with a slight grimace...

"Did that... hurt you, sir?"

"It's nothing."

The General quickly stepped away, moving towards the mouth of the cave. Ro struggled to sit up, ready to stand and join him.

"Get some rest."

The redhead opened his mouth to protest, but Cloud had already disappeared.


The General was back to wake him an hour before sunrise, and they set off at an incredible pace, to where Ro could only assume the rest of the army was waiting for them. The redhead rode Karat, while Cloud paced at the side, sometimes far ahead or behind, sometimes vanishing altogether. The chocobo seemed to know where to go, and Roman was more than willing to let him, grateful that, after almost two days of near-constant fighting, the world had seen fit to grant a respite...

//... at least for me.//

Cloud's most recent return had offered proof of what the other soldier had suspected, that The General had been fighting on his own all this time. His bare hands were flecked with blood, and the Ultima Weapon looked as if it had been dipped in pure crimson. The General was limping slightly, but betrayed no other sign of injury, or weariness, though by Roman's count he still hadn't slept since the mission had started.

"Sir? Do you want to ride for a while? I'll take point..."

He trailed off as the blonde shook his head, blue eyes still fixed on the horizon, and Ro flinched as his commander suddenly grimaced, one hand moving briefly to his temple. The soldier knew the familiar gesture as if it were his own.

//The Planet's speaking...//

"Where are they, sir?" Ro murmured, cautiously looking around. He could see nothing, hear nothing. The soft reply chilled him deeper than the frigid mountain air ever could.


All at once, the rocks, the ridges and the mountains surrounding them seemed to hold some dark secret, and Ro gripped tighter to the reins, waiting for the sign of fangs, or tentacles, or god knew what, to spring forth and attack. He thought he had seen the worst at Wutai, thought /nothing/ could truly shock him anymore, but the closer they got to the Crater, the more bizarre, and almost /unholy/ the world became.

"The radio doesn't work... it hasn't since yesterday, no matter how high we go, though we'd expected as much, really... /something/ is working against the signal." It went without saying, that something was Hojo. "I think most of Hojo's army is still following us, though. Our troops should be able to fight off what's left, recoup and find shelter even if they can't make it to where Sephiroth is."

It was eerie, the calm, even tone of The General's voice, as if he were talking about a ball game, or some story he'd read in the morning paper, conversational, not a warning, an omen that they were stepping right in the middle of hell.

"I almost don't want to join up with the other army, not if it will bring these bastards down on their heads too..." Cloud trailed off for a moment, lost in thought.

"You've been fighting them all this time, sir?" Ro was fairly sure he knew the answer, wasn't surprised at all when the blonde nodded.

The two men finally turned the corner, another icy blast of arctic wind taking Ro's breath away, as the natural windbreak of the canyon wall was removed...

"My God..."

Roman had spent all his time in the mountains at Wutai with his head low, seeing everything through the scope on his gun. He was young enough that the altitude had never bothered him enough to remember just how high he was, and he'd been too worried about the enemy, about nothing less than survival, to ever really bother to look at the landscape...

The snow plain stretched out before them, flat and blank, with a few ribbons of lighter or darker snow here and there, the small marks the largest any drifts could get under the often violent, powerful winds. The canyon wall still stretched high above them on one side, but on the other, it had dropped away, /completely/ away, revealing an incredible span of /nothing/... a row of hills far, far below, that seemed too small to be real, to be laying out as far away as his eyes swore they were. The redhead was alternately horrified, and fascinated, leaned forward just enough to peer over the edge... to see a river, nothing more than a vein of sparkling crystal far, far below...

Cloud, of course, said nothing, only stopped them for a moment, pulling a length of rope from Karat's saddlebag.

"Here..." He threw one end to Ro, began tying the other around his own waist. The redhead quickly repeated the process, and finished by tying himself to Karat's saddle.

"The snow's thin, then?"

"I can't tell... and the wind could pick up any time... it's just better not to take any chances."

The sun was surprisingly warm as they continued, out of the shadow of the canyon and onto the wide, featureless expanse of white.

"After this... in a few hours, we should come to a split path. I'll go one way, and Karat can take you to join the rest of the army at the end of the other. He's fast enough to get you there before nightfall, and I'll do my best to make sure nothing has a chance to follow you. Tell Sephiroth that most of those monsters are after /me/, that Hojo's hard-wired them /all/ that way, even up here. He's made a horrible tactical error... and the road to the Crater won't ever be more clear than it is now."

"What about you, sir?"

He received no answer, but Ro was already sure he knew. There was no food up here, and God only knew if any of the water was still clean, untainted by Jenova's poison... and The General had no shelter, no backup weapons, not even a radio...

Before he could think to protest, to stupidly ask his commander to reconsider, Cloud stopped short, and Karat froze as well. Ro looked around, saw nothing but blue sky, white snow and sunshine... but his stomach dropped, as his commander slowly pulled the Ultima Weapon off his back.

"... sir?" Ro whispered, reaching for his own gun, which seemed hilariously useless by comparison.

"I thought we'd make it back down, to the lower valley, before they'd reach us. I was sure, they were like the ones we'd fought before, and they couldn't make it this far up."

"What do you-- oh... god."

It was as sudden, as surprising as Ro had expected it would be. One moment, there was nothing. He blinked, and the ridge was crawling with darkness, with wide-mouthed snarls that flashed row upon row of dagger fangs, curved claws flexing in anticipation... and as the first set of monstrous creations moved forward, another group appeared, and another, and /another/... and they weren't just coming down the high ridge, but blocking the path ahead, and moving in behind... Roman could hear them chattering to one another in high, grating voices, could see in their slow, catlike movements, that they were /waiting/, deliberately holding on to the moment, reveling in anticipation of the kill...

It was funny, the redhead thought blankly, feeling Karat shudder beneath him, warbling with anxiety... funny, that no matter how many times he stared death in the face, no matter how many monsters he had fought, or how many barbs, spines, claws or teeth had threatened to shred him to oblivion, it never got redundant... this terror was the equal, easily the equal of the very first time he had seen one of Jenova's spawn gut a man right in front of his eyes.

Cloud had taken a few steps forward, away from the chocobo, his sword raised, his movements steady, unhurried... but Ro quickly realized as yet another, and /another/ line of monsters descended down upon them, that Hojo had finally learned his lesson, had finally not sent simply /more/ creatures at the General... but /all/ of them, a group so large that no spell, no blade would be fast enough... not to cut down enough of them to escape, or kill enough to survive...

The creatures were still moving forward with that excruciating slowness, and Ro studied them, despite his fear... noticed that they scuttled more than prowled, the faces a cluster of topaz eyes, without lids, and embedded chaotically in an otherwise blank void, their limbs poised unnaturally for the way they crawled, bent out and down at strange angles... The soldier repressed a shudder of disgust, and raised his gun, took aim at the closest one. He was prepared to go out fighting, though he knew it really made no difference at all.

A flicker of light caught his eye, his gaze instantly drawn back to The General. The man's back was turned to him, but Ro still caught another tell-tale glimmer of light... his commander was casting...

//I hope it works... I hope it's strong enough...//

He had a fleeting thought, that Cloud might be preparing to overload a Materia, that The General probably /did/ have a way to make sure that if they were going to die, /all/ of these creatures were coming along for the ride...

The leather reins were biting hard into his hands, and Ro was surprised at how much he noticed the slight discomfort, the ache in his back, the heat of the sun across his shoulders, the wind still biting on the back of his neck...

//I don't want to die... I don't... I don't...//

The General swiveled, and Ro's jaw dropped, saw that the green sphere in his armband was glowing wildly, but that Cloud had sheathed his sword, and those blue eyes looked up, and locked with his, clear and calm and fearless...

//What is he... what spell...?//

All at once, he knew.

The monsters seemed to realize something was up as well, and screeched out a splintering cry of attack, rushing forward... just as Cloud released the Quake 3 spell he had been holding straight down through the shelf of snow and ice beneath their feet.


Time slowed. Cloud looked down as he cast, and saw the tail end of the spell slip into the white, vanishing like a quicksilver serpent into the snow. At the first, there was nothing, and the monsters were still attacking, completely unaware of what he had done...

The crack split the air like a shotgun blast. The spell burst into life all at once, and the ground beneath Cloud's feet simply vaporized. He looked up, saw Ro and Karat hover in midair for a moment, the redhead looking more confused than afraid... and then they were falling, and falling, and /falling/.... monsters and snow and ice plummeting all around him in a massive, moving wall of sound and fear and fury, hurtling toward the earth...

One of Hojo's monsters dug its claws into him for a moment, but it was only by accident, and left no mark as it gave a strangled cry and vanished back into the wall of white. The creatures were terrified, this new situation nothing they had planned to encounter, and /not/ what they had been built for...

Cloud tried to curl up, to protect as much of his body as he could, and only hoped Roman could somehow do the same, that he and Karat would hit soft snow and not rock - //God, he didn't even know what lay beneath them// - but the fighter knew he had done the only thing that /might/ get them out of this alive...

/He/ hit rock, sooner than he had expected, but slid, the surface near vertical, and fell again, for nearly an equal length of time, landing this time against too-solid ground, the breath knocked out of him even before he had managed to draw it in. Cloud staggered to his feet without thinking... and looked up just in time, at the wall of surging, churning white that screamed its way across the slope to meet him.

//Quake 2... I should have used a Quake 2...//

His spell had triggered another avalanche even further up the mountain, and they had fallen from their high perch directly into its path. Cloud could barely throw his hands up to try and protect his head before the heavy packed snow drove into him with crushing force, throwing him once more through the air... and he was sliding, and tumbling and falling /again/...

- //Falling? Again?! I was looking /forward/ to being packed in snow, how can I possibly be fall-// -

He hit the river.


Hypothermia wasn't the only way to die in icy water. Drowning wasn't even the fastest. If the water was too cold, it could shock a heart right into cardiac arrest, or paralyze the respiratory system completely. Coming to the surface with a gasp that was nearly a scream, the knives of cold shooting through him on par with the bitter chill of the Lifestream at it's worst, Cloud almost wished it had...

The fighter couldn't think, couldn't move, and was dragged under again and again by the swift, vicious current, coming to the surface barely able to breathe, his entire body nearly paralyzed by the cold.

A glimpse of darkness, and the water sucked him under just as his head struck solidly against a half-submerged rock. The blow was incredible, the force of it shuddering halfway down his spine, and surely would have killed him, had he been anything but a SOLDIER...

Cloud still saw nothing but bright specks for a few moments, dizzying black spaces where the world should have been, and retched as he came back to the surface, relieving his stomach of the contents that, of course, weren't there to begin with...

//Score one for not having an appetite... and at least the river isn't poisoned... I hope.//

A pain against his side, sharp and sudden, and Cloud thought he had hit another rock... but his fumbling fingers quickly latched onto something else at his waist, a thin, unyielding object... and he couldn't figure out what it could be, couldn't find the end...

//... the rope!!!//

The General forced his eyes to open, to focus, just as Ro and Karat were lifted into the air by a wave of water ahead of him. Cloud nearly shouted with relief, both of them were still alive... Ro had one hand raised, signaling to him...

The two disappeared down the other side of the wave, and Cloud was dragged forward by the rope, back underneath the water to follow... only he /stayed/ there, in the frigid, churning cold, the surface seemingly miles above him, when he could see it at all. Cloud kicked out as hard as he could, no closer to reaching the surface despite the effort, stretching his arm desperately towards the rippling light high above... but he couldn't reach it, wasn't going to make it in time...

All at once, a surge of water pushed up from underneath, driving him back to the surface, the random chaos of the rapids not ready to let him die quite yet...

//I have to get us... /out/ of this damned water...// Poisoned or no, Cloud knew the redhead would not survive for long if they remained in the river... and that water this cold would wreak havoc even on a SOLDIER's body.

His first chance at salvation came much too soon, as Ro and Karat were swept past a narrow shelf, while he was thrown into it instead. The current spun him just before he hit, the back of his head smashing against the rock this time, gaining him another moment of near unconsciousness, even as he scrabbled desperately for a hold in the rough surface.

The weight on the other end of the rope was too much, though, and quickly ripped the blonde away from his fragile hold, dragging him back down the river. He was tossed through the whitewater, over and over again, missing boulder after boulder by inches, sucked back down under, spit out once more... but Cloud caught another glimpse of the boy and the bird as he came up through what seemed to be the worst of it... and they were still alive...

The current picked up, tugging even more forcefully even as it flattened out, the rocks vanishing. As Cloud came up a final time, he could hear a steadily growing sound, an even, light hissing over a deeper noise, a rumble that didn't disappear even as his head bobbed gently back under the water.

Well ahead of him now, Ro was screaming frantically, sending up water in wild spurts as he made a vain attempt to paddle upstream. Cloud couldn't make out the words, waterlogged mind still fixed on the tug of the river on his clothing, trying to remember what this river was, and where...

His eyes went wide, just as he saw it, the river, the immediate horizon coming to an abrupt end, /very/ close, and getting closer by the minute...



His muscles screamed as he pulled his way through the water, adding unbearably to the pressure in his head, until Cloud swore his skull would split from the strain... but he swam on, pouring everything he had into his stroke, the dead weight of Karat and Ro at the other end of that rope a reminder more powerful than any pain, that he /had/ to keep going...

Roman Gemini... the latest in a long line of subordinates, and it had hurt so much to lose the /last/ one... and Cloud remembered then, how he had told himself he wouldn't, /wouldn't/ treat the boy as anything but a burden, ignore him altogether, so that maybe Roman... Ro would go away... and survive.

Ro... not a friend, really... not as funny as Zack, or crazy like Yuffie, or as strong a fighter as any of them... but he was loyal, and dedicated, and kind. He had a family to protect, and a future... his own sorrows, his own joys...

//... and I /will not let that die/!!!!//

Swimming against the current, Cloud pushed himself by fractions towards the wall, to any handhold he could find there. He knew they must have passed a lower area, a sandy shoal, /somewhere/ further upstream that would be safe... and if he had to claw his way back there, dragging his friend and his faithful chocobo /every damn step of the way/ then so be it... fuck the cold, fuck the current... this was what he had been built for, he would /not/ fail!

The blonde's hands, already raw and bleeding from where they had been scraped against the river rocks, dug hard into the side of the wall, and held fast. Cloud grimaced, as Karat's weight strained against the rope, biting painfully into his waist... but he could take it, pain was /nothing/... and he held on... with one hand now, and flung the other out. He was moving forward, each inch costing him as much as the last two days of fighting combined, but his grip was sure, and his movements steady. He /was/ holding his own against the current now.

//Hold on... hold on... hold on...//

Cloud grinned wildly, even as a wave nearly submerged him, even with the cold, his fingers numb to the point of nonexistence... he /would/ win this fight. Hojo had built him too well, and even the worst the world could throw at him was not enough to stop him, could /not/ defeat him if he would fight for it. He /would/ survive, and bring Ro with him, and they would soon be laughing about this from the river bank...

...wherever it was.

//Hold on hold on hold on//

The words were a mantra, that mantra his only focus, as he forced fingers he could barely feel to dig further into the rock, knowing his hold was true only when the pain got worse...

//Hold on hold on hold//

- the blonde froze, snapped from his reverie by a sudden, sharp jerk, his thoughts swimming back into some sort of reality, dimly trying to figure out -

Another jerk, he looked up, expecting danger, but Roman was simply staring back at him, he and Karat still drifting near the center of the stream. The soldier was motionless, just watching, silent and terrified...

The rope around his waist pulled once more, a very small tug, almost a soft farewell... and it was suddenly much easier to hang on to the side of the cliff. Cloud was only carrying his own weight now, which seemed like nothing at all...

Wide eyes, full of horror met his, and Cloud watched that expression change, to one of quiet, almost bemused resignation, and swore he saw the redhead shrug slightly, as he and Karat slid back, and over the falls. Karat screamed, a shrill warble that hung in the air long after he vanished, but Ro never made a sound.





Author's Notes - now in springtime fresh!

1. I'm totally wavering on whether to let Anjele go psycho-boy or not, not that it matters as I know no one else really gives a damn and is just reading this for all the Cloud-Sephiroth bits. <laugh> I really can't decide... so neither can he. : )

2. "Blonde" is used for females, "blond" for males... yeah, I know that's proper style, but I /really/ don't care.

3. Hey, Craighill34 (Jess)! I liked your story and put it up on my site, but my e-mail wouldn't let me write to you! I would have said something a long time ago, but I couldn't get a hold of you! Sorry!

4. Hey, Knowing Shadows... why are you making all Cloud gay???? (hee hee hee) Keep up the good work. : )

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